The recent literary furore over new versions of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s books has fascinated me because I think it misses a larger point about our modern relationship with stories themselves. For those unaware, the Dahl estate decided to reprint his stories with edited text that makes frequent small changes to alter descriptions like “fat”, “ugly” and “crazy”. Media coverage of the changes (which was not entirely acccurate) prompted widespread cricitism. However, the issue strikes me not as a matter of language but of ownership and immutability of the printed word.

Roald Dahl books

Humans, as we are frequently told, are storytelling creatures. It is how we understand our relationship with the world and each other, how we reconstruct our memories on a daily basis and how we interpret our histories. Until the last few hundred years, almost all of those stories endured through oral tradition which made them inherently malleable. On each retelling the stories would change, being adapted to fit the sensibilities of the time, the orator and the audience.

It was really the printing press which led to the mass adoption of a single version of a story, stamped with its author’s name, which could survive beyond the author’s lifetime. That, together with the concept of copyright, resulted in the monopolistic ownership of a story by its author which now effectively prohibits any unauthorised retelling until (under UK law) 70 years after their death. Literary criticism identified the artificiality of this ownership in Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author, opining that the author commands no definitive interpretive control over the text once it has been published.

“Don’t gobblefunk around with words.”

Roald Dahl, The BFG

The changes to Dahl’s books are not the result of censorship but of capitalism: the estate plainly saw the opportunity to sell more copies of the books by making these changes, as evidenced by their rapid decision to keep reprinting the original text as well when it became clear that some would refuse to buy the edited versions. That is not the reversal of a principled decision but a series of pragmatic adjustments to fit the market.

Ascribing new words to a dead writer makes me inherently uncomfortable — this blog will turn 20 later this year, and even in that time I imagine I would cringe at some things I may previously have said, but it would be galling for anyone but me to change those words. I would much rather that Dahl’s choice of words be used to educate about societal changes and why we no longer ridicule people for being “fat” or “ugly” or “crazy” (from my own childhood, I recall my dad explaining the problematic existence of golliwogs in Enid Blyton’s Noddy books, which is when I began to understand how racism could be normalised within a society). I consider the high water mark for acknowledging the issues with past artistic works to be the Warner Brothers warning plate which precedes recent releases of old cartoons.

Warner Brothers content warning
The text reads: The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. While the following does not represent the Warner Bros. view of today’s society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.

The better way to excise content entirely is to retell the story. The estate could have selected an author to do so, but they are invested in Dahl’s name as much as the stories themselves. As a society we continue to maintain the close link between the author and their creations but it is something that warrants consideration. I have written previously about the way that comicbook superheroes can be killed and reinvented to reflect the values of each decade in manner more similar to the oral myths of old. This is made possible due to lack of authorial ownership, meaning that multiple authors can provide a variety of perspectives. To be clear, publisher ownership is not a solution, having its own issues in exploitation of creators and gatekeeping of new works. However, there is a longer term decision that society needs to make as to whether we are being best served by the current system of story ownership, rooted in capitalism, or denied a cultural tradition that was once fundamental to our species.